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Steady improvement has Panthers optimistic

by Robert Picarello

With Olli Jokinen traded away, Nathan Horton becomes the Panthers' highest remaining scorer, after he tied a career-high with 65 points.
VIEW Nathan Horton's 07-08 highlights
The Florida Panthers went 38-35-9 during the 2007-08 season, missing the playoffs for the seventh-consecutive season. But the ‘07-08 season wasn't a total waste for the franchise, as the up-and-coming club learned how to win down the stretch.

In the last two months of the season, the Panthers went 10-4-1 in their final 15 games. Florida had its best month of the season in March, finishing with an 8-3-1 record in 12 games. The team won seven-straight games during the month and picked up at least one point in nine consecutive contests. That impressive run allowed the Panthers to stay in the playoff race until the final days of the '07-08 campaign.

The Panthers also learned how to win games away from home, winning a franchise-best 20 games on the road in '07-08. The Panthers finished with a 20-20-1 road record and took four of their last six on the road. This was a dramatic improvement from last season, when the Panthers were 12-19-10 away from their building.

"I think every year the organization has gotten better – they've improved in points," backup goalie Craig Anderson said. "They've been one step closer to the playoffs. This is only my second season with the organization, but the way we finished last year was strong. I think we have the character to continue on with that from last year."

Next season, Florida will not only have the character and experience needed to win in the East, the team will also have a solid base to build upon. The Panthers have key players at every position locked up for next season and beyond, including Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss, and starting goalie Tomas Vokoun.

Horton and Weiss are both signed for five more seasons.

Olli Jokinen led the Panthers with 34 goals and 37 assists, while also leading the club with 18 power-play goals. But he and GM Jacques Martin were often at odds and Jokinen was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes at the Entry Draft for defensemen Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton and a draft pick.

Horton ended the year nine points behind Jokinen, scoring 27 goals and 35 assists. Horton's 62 points tied his career high in points, which he set last season by scoring 31 goals and 31 assists. Weiss finished third on the team in scoring, netting 13 goals and 29 assists in 74 games. Weiss posted career bests in assists (29), game-winners (4) and plus/minus (plus-14), while also picking up a career high 40 minutes in penalties.

The team is set in goal with Vokoun under contract for three more seasons and Anderson signed for this coming season.

Vokoun started 69 of the Panthers' 82 games during the '07-08 season, registering a 30-29-8 record to go along with a 2.68 GAA, a .919 save percentage and four shutouts. Vokoun's four shutouts was one shy of his career-high, which he set as a member of the Nashville Predators in the 2006-07 season. He was a busy man on most nights for the Panthers, making 40-plus saves on 10 different occasions for Florida. His 2033 saves on the season and 2213 shots against were by far and away the most of any goalie in the NHL.

Anderson made the most of his starts. In the closing weeks of the '07-08 campaign, Anderson kept Florida in playoff contention by winning five straight starts and seven of his last 10 games. In the five wins, Anderson only gave up a combined five goals, recording back-to-back 1-0 shutouts during the impressive run by stopping a combined 93 shots. Anderson finished the year an 8-6-1 record, a 2.25 GAA, two shutouts and a .935 save percentage in 17 games.

On the blue line, Florida now has two solid players in Ballard and Boynton joining Bryan Allen, who is signed for another four seasons, Mike Van Ryn for two and Cory Murphy for one.

One key defender missing from that list is restricted free agent Jay Bouwmeester, the team's top-scoring defenseman and minutes monster. The 24-year-old set career highs for himself during the season, averaging 27:28 minutes per game, and scoring 15 goals, four of which came on the power play.

Two other key contributors from the '07-08 season for the Panthers were forwards David Booth and Brett McLean.

Booth appeared in 73 games, recording a career best 22 goals and 18 assists, while finishing fourth on the team in scoring with 40 points. His six game-winning goals paced the Panthers, while 21 of his 22 goals were scored at even strength. McLean finished right behind Booth on the Florida scoring charts, winding up tied for fifth in scoring with 37 points in 67 games.

"There's a bright future here," Allen said. "It's going to be a great place to play. I'm really excited about the future here. I think the mixture on this team is good. I think a mixture of veterans and youth is vital to any team because the way the game is played now you have to develop the players in your organization and get them ready to play. I think we have a good mix of older guys and young guys. But as a whole, we're a pretty young group. We're also a pretty close-knit group."

The close-knit bunch finished third in the Southeast in 2008, posting a 16-14-2 record against the teams in their division, while ending the year 11th in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers played in 48 one-goal games during the season, finishing with a 25-15-8 record in those nail-biters.

At the end of the '07-08 season, the Panthers announced that Martin would no longer play the dual role of coach/GM. Instead, Martin will concentrate solely on his GM duties. The new coach is Peter DeBoer, who has been a successful coach with the Kitchener Rangers in the Ontario Hockey League.


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